It took me decades TRULY to understand the qualities that make for great leadership. I finally learned what they are but only after observing more models, mentors, and lessons than I can count. I am still surprised at how slowly I realized that the key strengths of great leaders are not command, control, or management skills, as so many top administrators misleadingly “teach” us. Part of the problem is that while it is easy to state what makes a great leader, it is very difficult and even risky to practice great leadership.
A great leader must have the ability to spot and hire excellent people; build a passionate, committed team; liberate everyone on that team; and then trust them with the autonomy and authority to make decisions, innovate, and test their inspirations and ideas in practice.
The leader brings a vision and broad outline of services and programs to a library and supplies the environment, the culture, and the attitudes through which the services are offered. But members of the team will come up with most of the ideas and often make the decisions and strategies to execute them. It takes a carefully supportive and wide-open mentality on the part of the administration to stimulate staff to enlist and participate in the process. Too few library leaders possess the willingness to trade command and control for participation, creativity, and innovation.
Crucial to the great leader’s success is building an institutional philosophy that ensures that no one on the staff is afraid to make those decisions at any time and without prior approval. “The staff are just getting comfortable with making decisions,” LJ 2014 Librarian of the Year Corinne Hill told me, after two years as executive director of the Chattanooga Public Library. She is working to build a new institutional tradition free of fear. I was totally convinced she was a great leader when I heard how she told her new colleague Nate Hill to make an entire floor of that library into a place for creativity for the city.
At the retirement party for my wife, Louise, dozens of Connecticut’s Darien Library staffers told of overcoming that apprehension after her 35 years of encouraging a fear-free environment there.
One was Melissa Yurechko, former head of children’s services at Darien and now director of the Rowayton Library, CT. She recalled her qualms when she told Louise that Darien would need 100 more copies of the first Harry Potter book to meet demand created by their highly publicized children’s event to welcome the book. Every copy the library had was reserved. “Buy them,” was the response.
My own mentor and leader, Eric Moon, urged all of the LJ editors to “make your mistakes in print.” There was no penalty for the many mistakes I made, except for a lot of embarrassing published corrections.
It takes a lot of practice for staff who have not had the autonomy and authority to make decisions to become comfortable doing it. It takes a leader who is willing to give staff the support for those options, no matter the outcome.
My career as a librarian is in its sixth decade. It took more than two-thirds of that time for me to get the message. I finally learned that although all the processes, rules, and administrative approaches in the library manager’s toolbox have their usefulness, they are not what make the director an effective leader.
The toughest lesson for too many library directors to learn is that all the good ideas don’t emanate from the director’s office. The best way to spur innovation, foster staff confidence and the willingness to take risks, and create a dynamic library loved by the community is to hire great people and get out of their way.